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Outrunning Cancer: What This Marathon Has Taught Me So Far

May 17, 2012

Today was my 18th radiation treatment session for stage three rectal cancer. I have 10 treatments left. Tomorrow I start counting down in the single digits. Provided I don’t have to take a break for severe crack burns or other side effects, my last treatment should take place on Friday, June 1.

While the prospect of an end to this treatment cycle is exciting, I realize this is only the first stage (relay leg, if you will) of a cancer marathon. Leg two will be surgery this summer to remove whatever remains of the tumor. The last leg is much tougher round of chemo to make sure there are no traces of cancer in my system.

I’ve compared my cancer journey to a marathon almost since the moment I was diagnosed at the end of March. It was easy to do. I’ve run or walked four marathons since April 2010, and number of half marathons. I love endurance events, and I’m especially grateful for the experiences of walking or running races as fund-raisers for the American Cancer Society DetermiNation program.

My last race, the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon, was April 1. Today, I can barely walk a mile. I know, because I did it at lunch today. BC (before cancer) I worked out at least five days a week, usually going 6 or more miles on the elliptical. Now, as a result of the fatigue caused by the radiation, I don’t feel like doing anything after work. I know this will pass, eventually, but being couch-bound most nights and some full days is torture for an exercise junkie.

Those who read my blog regularly know “exercise junkie” is a relatively new term for me. It wasn’t all that long ago, just two years or so, in fact, that I was 100 pounds heavier than I am today. Exercise and proper nutrition helped me lost the weight. So, this newly imposed inactivity has given me some measure of fear that I’m going to gain back the weight. I am happy to report that my weight has remained the same since my first visit to the radiation oncologist. No weight gain. Good times.

I’ve been a “cancer patient” for almost two months now, and I’ve already learned a lot:

  • Always, always listen to your body. I believe it’s because I had lost weight and was eating healthfully that I knew something was wrong with me. I had digestive issues for about three months before I saw a doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist, who diagnosed the rectal cancer. Likewise, I am listening now to the fatigue. I could harm myself or my treatment by pushing myself harder than my body is willing to go. Treatment is hard, my body is tired. Resting is okay.
  • God gives you the strength you need when you need it. I’ve learned this on marathon courses. Running and walking the Country Music Marathon in 80-degree heat was brutal, but God got me to the end despite calf cramps and depleted electrolytes. As a cancer patient, I know radiation treatment is necessary to shrink the tumor, but climbing onto a table to get radiated knowing my rectum and my crack are, literally, getting burned and will hurt, is something I know only God is helping me do.
  • Anger profits me nothing. The lovely Sarah has asked me a couple of times if I’m angry that I have cancer, because it would be understandable if I were angry. I’m not. God hasn’t cursed me with cancer, although I believe He has something to teach me in this process. I’m not a super Christian, God knows believe me, blowing smoke about rising above my circumstances. I don’t ask “why me?” perhaps because I work for the American Cancer Society and I “know too much.” Did you know one of every three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime? Statistically, why not me?
  • Love will find you. “You didn’t have to get cancer to find out that people love you,” my friend and co-worker Megan joked the other day. I have been humbled by the love and support showered upon Sarah and me, and rendered speechless several times in the process. I have a growing collection of cowbells and other awesome cow-related items (cows are known to wear cowbells, which make my favorite sound when I’m running a distance race). In addition, it seems everyone wants to do “something,” and we appreciate it. When the surgery and follow-up chemo come, I promise you we will be calling for help. God, and his people, are pretty amazing.
  • A sense of humor will take you far. For example, I sent this text to a group of friends we call our Unfamily this afternoon: “Flaming Buttholes is a great name for a band.” I’m happy to say, they took the humor even farther. “What genre would that be?” “Ba-donk-a-donk or ass-id Rock.” “Heard of them,” another friend said. “They had the one-hit wonder, ‘Burning Uranus.'”
  • This is not the end of me. One of the toughest conversations after I was diagnosed was with my little sister, who was in tears when we spoke. She needed reassurance that I was not going to die. “This is not going to kill me,” I said. “The next year will suck, but my prognosis is excellent.” And it’s true. My prognosis is excellent, and there will be a beautiful life on the other side.
  • Planning for life AC (after cancer) begins now. Yes, life will be beautiful on the other side of cancer. I plan to write a book about my experience — from the decision to get healthy at age 40 to marathon training to cancer diagnosis, treatment and victory. I will run the Rock ‘n Roll Savannah Half Marathon in November 2013 as a DetermiNation athlete once again. I will have a wonderful life with my sweetie and caregiver, the equally unstoppable and lovely Sarah.

The end? Heck no! This is only the beginning…

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3 Comments
  1. Lynda permalink

    Thank you, for the courage, the laughs and the sharing of your journey. Heal On!

  2. Nancy Hauskins permalink

    You are hilarious and inspirational my friend!!! Thank you for sharing the laughter and love that can come from trials. You will win and we will all help you celebrate!

  3. You are an inspiration, Michael. Keep running!

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